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Are People with High Cognitive Resources More Active?

New SHARE-based study investigates a temporal precedence between cognition and physical activity after the age of 50

(March 2021) Overweight, obesity and high-blood pressure – physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are increasing worldwide problems leading to negative health outcomes. Due to evolution, humans have the tendency to minimize and save energetic costs as this promised an advantage for individuals to survive in the past. Nowadays, this mechanism became obstructive due to our changing lifestyle. Physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are associated with high risks for health, well-being and chronical diseases especially in older age.

Therefore, focusing research on variables that influence the engagement in physical activity is ever more important. For instance, could high levels of cognition counteract the mechanism? A study by Cheval et al. concentrates on a time-ordered relationship between cognition and physical activity. The authors investigate whether the engagement in physical activity depends on the level of cognitive resources. Further, they explore whether the age-related decline of cognitive resources precedes the decline in physical activity while aging.

Measuring cognition and physical activity with SHARE data

The researchers used data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (Waves 1 to 6 (2004 to 2015)). In total, over 105,000 adults aged 50 to 90 from 21 European countries were included in the analysis. To measure their level of cognitive resources, two different testing methods were used as indicators for cognitive functioning and memory performance: delayed recall (remember 10 words over a short period of time) and verbal fluency (name as many different animals as possible in 60 seconds). Additionally, the highest educational attainment was assessed. To measure the level of engagement in physical activity, participants were asked to self-report how often they engage in activities that require a low or moderate level of energy such as gardening, cleaning or doing a walk.

Higher cognitive resources are associated with more physical activity

The main study results show that people who score high at delayed recall, verbal fluency and education are associated with more frequent engagement in physical activity. In other words, low levels of cognitive resources are associated with lower levels of moderate physical activity. This finding remains stable even considering other factors such as age, gender and dementia. Furthermore, the results show that high levels of cognitive resources are associated with a lower decline of physical activity for people above 50. Decline in cognitive resources precedes decline in moderate physical activity, with a weaker association in the opposite direction. In total, the study results show that the level of engagement in moderate physical activity and its trajectory depend on the availability of cognitive resources after the age of 50. This result provides a new perspective on the relationship between cognition and physical activity.

Cognition as a key element for physical activity in the second half of life

Cheval et al.are the first researchers to investigate a temporal precedence between cognition and engagement in physical activity and fill a knowledge gap to clarify the nature of this relationship.The SHARE based results show that cognition is a key element for the engagement in physical activity. As previous studies prove a positive impact of physical activity on health, it is important to promote being active. The present work is an important contribution to develop suitable interventions and policies focusing on cognitive resources to guarantee high levels of engagement in physical activity after the age 50 and an active and healthy lifestyle. To investigate in this research area is important to change humans’ health-related behaviour and the world-wide pandemic of physical inactivity.

Study by Boris Cheval, Dan Orsholits, Stefan Sieber, Delphine Courvoisier, Stéphane Cullati and Matthieu P. Boisgontier (2019). Relationship between Decline in Cognitive Resources and Physical Activity. Health Psychology 39(6), 519-528. Doi: 10.1037/hea0000857


Photo: Adobe Stock / pikselstock